Products of Change


Mon 21 Nov 2022 | by Rob Hutchins

From "Hungry Hungry Hippos to Chess" | Tesco talks its sustainable packaging plans

The sustainable packaging space has been likened to the chaotic brawl of Hungry Hungry Hippos - a great starter game for the suppliers who should now be thinking more strategically, like playing chess instead. It was Paul Earnshaw, the senior packaging manager at Tesco CE who made the comparison at this year’s Sustainability in Licensing Conference where the man in charge of regulating all non-food packaging for the supermarket’s European operations delivered his discussion on sustainable packaging development. “What does it feel like to me working in sustainability? Well, at the moment, it feels like we’re playing a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos,” he told attendees. “Which is an absolutely fantastic game to play. “Let me say it out loud. The more people we can get playing Hungry Hungry Hippos the better… but it does feel like a chaotic brawl to get rid of plastic, make everything recyclable, when, actually, being sustainable is more complicated than doing just those simple things.” Paul told audiences gathering at the Royal Geographical Society in London last month – as well as tuning in online for the digital live-stream – that a more strategic approach is favourable to take into consideration the entire sustainability of the packaging. He broke it down into six key questions to be answered: What’s the carbon impact [of the packaging]? What’s its land and water use? Is it efficient? Is it recyclable? Are we worrying about litter and food waste? What about safety and toxicity? “Also, it’s got to cost in,” said Paul. “It’s got to make commercial sense to launch it – sustainability is really, really complicated. So, although we want everyone to be playing Hungry Hungry Hippos, we now need to start playing it like chess.”

Paul Earnshaw delivered an update on Tesco's RAG table and incoming legislation around Extended Producer Responsibility
Tesco is in it for the long haul. Paul has, himself, spent 34 years in packaging development and is an integral player in Tesco sustainable packaging strategy, helping Europe’s second largest supermarket brand in its mission statement to be “the most helpful retailer for recycling and reuse.” Tesco’s goal is clear, ‘ensuring every material it uses is either reused or easily recyclable, using recycled materials where possible.” It's what’s led Tesco to drawing up its Sustainability Guide – a 114-page guide on sustainable packaging. It’s also what has driven the retailer to revising that guide in accordance with latest developments and legislation to release its latest version, a 200-page plus magnum opus. Further to that still, it’s why Tesco is happy to open source that same guide to all suppliers and potential suppliers to help everyone find a standardisation within this ‘chaotic brawl’ of Hungry Hungry Hippos. “We want people to use it as a textbook,” said Paul. “Simply because it’s the right thing to do. It’s why we’re here. My day job is all about saving the planet. And yours should be too.” The TESCO RAG Table Central to Tesco’s policy on packaging is its RAG table, a traffic light system on supplier packaging that fall within the Red, Amber, and Green categories. It’s a very simple concept to get a hold of. “We sat and thought about all the different packaging formats out there and put them into the three categories,” explained Paul. “If you’re using packaging in the Red category you won’t be allowed to sell it through Tesco. It is bad, you need to get out of it – you shouldn’t be using it anyway. “Green is what you should be using. Amber is material and formats that we don’t like but there aren’t any alternatives to using them… yet. If you come to us and you’re using Amber category formats or materials, we will assess why and what your pathways towards getting out of it and into the Green are. We will also help in developing that with you.” As science and technology evolves, so too does the RAG table and each year it is reviewed to align with the latest in discovery and legislation. For instance, mono-flexible films are now in the Green category because they are collected by Tesco at the front of store for recycling.
Tesco's packaging preferred materials and formats guide is part of the sustainability guide free for suppliers to 'use as a textbook.'
Tesco's RAG table puts materials into Red, Amber, and Green categorisations
Preference spectrums Of course, that may over simplify the process a little too much. We already know sustainability is a lot more complicated than that. “Even if you comply with the RAG, you can do better,” said Paul. Glass, as an example sits in the Green category. But Tesco wants it suppliers to do better than just using glass. So it breaks it down: If you’re using glass, the best glass – it stupluates – is flint or light colour, the next best is green or amber glass (but these are not as good for the planet), next is cobalt, blue and ambers (these are more difficult to recycle), and the next best is powder or spray coated glass (not as good for the environment). “It’s not just a case of meeting the basic requirement. You have to try to do better,” said Paul. “We have lots of these spectrums for all materials and formats.” The Taxes Of course, it stands to reason, that Tesco is at the forefront of the latest in packaging legislation. Already, the retailer is well underway with its plastic packaging tax data collection. A tax that came into effect in April 2022, Tesco is now getting ready for its second submission on this. The premise is, again, a simple one. If you are using any single use plastic and that plastic does not contain recycled content, you have to pay £200 per tonne of virgin plastic you are using. “It’s a good thing to do because it’s a good way to get recycled content into your plastic,” explained Paul. “It’s incredibly data heavy and you need to know about every single bit of plastic you are using – how much it weighs, and how you can get recycled content into it. Extended Producer Responsibility is the next gear shift for packaging. It’s a fee that will apply to all packaging, whether it is plastic, metal, cardboard, glass,  -“everything.” The body of the legislation is still being fleshed, but it is anticipated that it will begin to apply to packaging put onto the market from 2023. Its purpose, fundamentally, is to guide a stronger lean into reuse and the circular economy. How, you ask? “It targets packaging that can’t be recycled easily,” Paul explained. “The heavier and more packaging you’re using the more you’re going to pay. Looking at packaging formats and materials that are easily recycled it will charge that at ‘x’ per tonne per products. “Material that is possible to recycle, but not as easily – e.g. rigid clear PET will be charged at ‘Y’ per tonne per product. And finally, something that is very difficult to recycle, like black plastic – they will charge that at ‘Z’ per tonne per product. “So, it’s going to push you into making your packaging lighter. If you want to mitigate this tax, you should be making your packaging more recyclable and using less of it, which is great.” Paul Earnshaw’s top four strategies for future-proofing your packaging
  1. Specify your packaging to be the best it can be at all stages of its life. For example, it comes from a good place (sustainably sourced, uses recycled materials, minimised the amount of materials used), it does good (it must work well when used – ships efficiently, protects the products and delights the customer), and at the end of its life it must be able to go to a good place – recyclable or reusable.
  1. Try to use mono materials and formats. If using a cardboard box, use paper tape. Plastic bottle? Use a plastic label and a plastic cap. It makes it easier for the recyclers.
  2. Try to avoid exotic materials and formats. If we could get the whole of the UK to a place where it openly uses three forms of plastic – recyclers would only have three different types of plastic to cope with. So, try to avoid them but that’s not to say to avoid innovation.
  3. Apply the Four Rs – Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. If it has no technical function, it shouldn’t be there. Make it smaller, thinner, lighter, than make sure it’s recyclable.
Paul ended his SiLC 2022 session with challenge for the packaging industry. “We are really interested in reuse and refill,” he said. “We need some more strategies here, and I am challenging the packaging industry. “We need to find plastic removal solutions that make sense. If you drive up food waste because you’ve reduced plastic, it’s the wrong thing to do. But we need to save the planet, because, like my son says to me, ‘Dad, this shit is important.’”